The Supreme Court ruled on May 17 in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to life without parole. The holding that such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punnishment appears also to bring a successful resolution to Sullivan v. Florida, a companion case argued by Professor Bryan Stevenson last November on the same day as Graham.

Joe Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison for a rape committed at age 13. In oral arguments, Stevenson said, “To say to any child of 13 that you are only fit to die in prison is cruel. It can’t be reconciled with what we know about the nature of children, about the character of children. It cannot be reconciled with our standards of decency, and we believe that the Constitution obligates us to enforce those standards and reverse this judgment.”

The rarity of life sentences for non-homicide juvenile offenders played an important role in the Court’s 5-4 decision in Graham. Currently, only 129 juveniles nationwide are serving such sentences; 77 of them are in Florida. The opinion drew also on Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 Supreme Court case that banned capital punishment for those under 18, as well as studies showing that parts of the brain related to behavior control continue to develop into late adolescence.

“We’re very pleased with the Court’s ruling,” says Stevenson, who is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, “and extremely encouraged by the precedent this sets for the status of children in the criminal justice system who still have needs and vulnerabilities even if they’ve been convicted of serious crimes." He adds, “We began challenging life without parole for kids several years ago, so it’s gratifying and encouraging to read the Court’s opinion today.”

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Retribution is a legitimate reason to punish, but it cannot support the sentence at issue here. Society is entitled to impose severe sanctions on a juvenile nonhomicide offender to express its condemnation of the crime and to seek restoration of the moral imbalance caused by the offense. But ‘[t]he heart of the retribution rationale is that a criminal sentence must be directly related to the personal culpability of the criminal offender.’” A dissenting opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas cited a law review article by Professor Rachel Barkow.

Posted on May 17, 2010